The homeless rights bill had a ton of discussion in a House committee Wednesday.

Homeless rights bill: so hot, debate continued

Peter OsborneHeadlines, Government

The homeless rights bill had a ton of discussion in a House committee Wednesday.

The homeless rights bill had a ton of discussion in a House committee Wednesday.

After yet another long public hearing March 27 about the Homeless Bill of Rights legislation, the House Judiciary Committee recessed until April 17 with a lot of clarification to do before the bill can move forward.

First-term Rep. Sophie Phillips (D-Bear) characterized the changes made in her House Substitute No. 2 to House Bill No. 55 as “minor” and that the amendments came after discussions with different stakeholders. 

But she also conceded that she needs to talk to many more people before the General Assembly can pass a bill that’s been years in development.

What was clear following the two-plus hour standing-room-only hearing is that Phillips’ Band-Aids are covering a sucking chest wound of concerns about the rights of local businesses, where the homeless can park and sleep, where funding is going to come from, and even a back-and-forth with Rep. Jeffrey Spiegelman (R-11) about changing enforcement language to “shall” over “may” to require consultation with the municipalities where complaints are coming from.

Despite only 20 minutes of public comment from a small portion of the people who signed up, it was clear that the devil is in the details before passage of a bill that purports to treat individuals experiencing homelessness to have equal opportunity to live in decent, safe, sanitary, and healthful accommodations and enjoy equality of opportunities.

Spiegelman sparred with Phillips over the possibility that people will be allowed to “sleep in lobbies” where the laws of certain municipalities go “so far beyond just protecting basic human rights that customers are scared away.”

Phillips said her bill was not designed to align with legislation created in areas out West after Spiegelman’s observation about “videos of restaurant owners taking a hose to the guy sleeping on their doorstep to scare him away to bring in customers started with a well-intentioned bill like this.”

In other words, it’s a slippery slope between vision and implementation.

Yes, the 20 minutes of public comment included success stories, but legislators also heard horror stories that need addressing.

For the Delaware Apartment Association, the question is whether landlords have the right to assess risk by using eviction and rental histories to determine their ability to pay rent and preserve the “quiet enjoyment of other tenants’ units.”

For restaurant owners and retailers, there’s the issue of people sleeping within inches of their front doors.

Attorney Richard Forsten said the problems the bill needs to address include panhandling outside the Emmanuel Dining Room and the administrative burden passage will entail.

For Stitch House Brewery Owner Rob Snowberger, he’s had to deal with picking up used colostomy bags and feces from his sidewalk.

“The good thing is that Rep. Phillips seems to be limiting where the homeless can congregate in neighborhoods,” said lobbyist C. Scott Kidner. “The bad news is that she keeps narrowing the opposition with her changes to the point it may not be clear whether this is good public policy and ultimately who ends up paying.”

The amendment proposed by Phillips highlights the extent of the problem in Delaware. It would put enforcement in the hands of the Delaware Division of Human and Civil Rights, which is responsible for enforcement of state and federal fair housing laws and the Equal Accommodations Law.

Lisa Oglesby, managing director of the New Castle County Hope Center, said that the bill follows the model developed by the East Coast’s largest homeless shelter. Since opening in December 2020 in the midst of the COVID crisis, the Hope Center has served 404 families and 3,700 individuals have spent one night.

The question we need to answer is where are they supposed to go,” she said during her brief remarks. “We need to get to another layer of conversation to find solutions, because when you give people opportunity, they flourish.”

In his two minutes, Mike Hare, executive vice president of development and acquisitions for developer Buccini Pollin Group, said it is clear input is needed from more people.

“All we’re asking for is more time to have a productive conversation,” he said.

But at least he has three more weeks before the Judiciary Committee reconvenes.

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